Spend any amount of time in a grocery store and you’ll see foods labeled in separate categories. Organic, all-natural, naturally raised, grass-fed and grain-fed labels supply shelves and meat counters.
While each one of these categories has its own market, confusion can occur on what defines qualifications for the label.
“Organically labeled meat means that the animal’s diet can consist of any grain or forage product as long as those feed items are certified organic,” says University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Educator Lindsay Chichester. “This program is the most strict with the most guidelines, and is governed by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP).”
According to the most recent Organic Market Overview, this niche market is gaining steam in sales and now takes up more than 3 percent of U.S. food sales.
For a meat product to qualify as certified organic, livestock must live an antibiotic and hormone-free life (all food naturally contains hormones, this refers to administered). In addition, feed resources are also regulated.
“To be certified organic, a grain or forage resource must not have had synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation applied, and/or had genetically engineered products produced on that ground in three or more years,” she says.
Something that has potential to confuse consumers is that organic only certifies the livestock’s feed resources, not the finished product. This means that colorant products can be added to the meat during processing.
Chichester is also quick to point out that there is no research confirming organic foods are healthier than conventionally raised foods. Because of lack of preservative use, organically grown products have the possibility of increased contamination of bacteria, parasite and pathogens.
“However, people who may have food allergies, chemical allergies, or intolerance to preservatives may prefer organic food products,” she says. “Additionally, organically produced strawberries, corn, and marionberries may be higher in antioxidants than the conventionally raised form.”
“Meat, poultry, and eggs that carry the “natural” label cannot be altered during processing; this would include the addition of artificial ingredients (spices, marinades, sauces, etc.), the addition of colorants, the additional of chemical preservatives, making the meat minimally processed,” says Chichester.